March 25, 2006

unfair jotting on a book fair

Another edition of the Arabic Book Fair has folded on yet another sad note of raised and failed expectations. Nothing to do with it being held in once sea-sided Karbabad mind you, as much as that déjà vu sense that the Arabic printed word still lives in a karbabad state of its own. Perhaps it’s only a logical mirror of the situation. If the question was: what sort of intellectual output can we expect under conditions of economic/political/ theological failure, the answer can be easily detected at your nearest Arabic book fair. In some countries (Jordan has the only available data), people spend less on books than on kitchen matches. And that’s not out of environmental concern. People have little use for an Arabic book that remains –in 98.4% of the case- narcissistically boastful, intellectually anemic, and syntactically convoluted and anti-layman(woman).

There are certainly exceptions to this unfair rule, but to unearth the few glimpses from under the maze of the fair is momentously tough and spinally risky. The participating publishers do not even provide you with a basic list of their new/critically acclaimed books, no common website to search an author’s work, no book review sections of note in local/regional papers, so how one is supposed to know? Getting to the few and far between is like finding a needle in a stack of hay. The hay here is the usual fare at any fair: a curious mix of never-changing annotations on heaven’s holy word (and graphic depictions of the hereafter), loads of instruction manuals of ever-changing Microsoft Word (or other graphics applications), mounts of college textbooks serving no liberal education on the same desk with recipe cookbooks, liberally spiced.

But one need not despair. Apart from the intellectual economy of the traded word, a book fair is also an occasion with its unique sociological moments (not that one can analyze).

If you toured the fair right-handedly, your first stop –and no small surprise- would come at the spacious official Saudi booth. Centre stage is given to the works of no other than the late and incredible Abdul Rahman Munif. The very government that stripped him of his citizenship now reinstating him posthumously? Another pen triumphant over the sword? But please, if Cities of Salt jumped to mind, do not inconvenience a certain booth attendant. His full attending faculties are turned toward no salty booth just opposite, a cookbooks bookstore, manned (womanned?) and mostly visited by the sweetly peppered half.

As you move up, you’ll begin to hear the wafting of a top chart lamentation across the Shia East this season, Hussain Al-Akraf’ s able rendition of the masterful verse of Al-Sayed Al-Hindi:

صلت على جسد الحسين سيوفهم، فغدا لساجدة الظبا محرابا

How apt. a lamentful tune goes along way to describe the heaps around you. Besides, their swords had also prayed and preyed on the body-cultural, and their cutting blades took a worshipping spot at every other inked page. As you pass by the stand broadcasting it, a local bookstore that sells more CD’s and cassettes than books, you are reminded that the pen may be mightier than the sword but never the audio-visual.

As you pass by a publisher still at its resuscitation effort of the heritage (Ihyaa Al-Turath), one very young veiled girl is already giving up as she earnestly asks about the book of “Signs of Second Coming” at one of countless many Shia publishers from everywhere, but mainly from Lebanon. A sure sign of a Shia crescent conspiracy, if not of a second coming. The timing is less than perfect as the local faithful are increasingly strapped for cash, but the gaps is more than leveled by faith-starved crowds from Qatif & Ihsaa, with some appearing to have died on the causeway and resurrected into a faith-filled heaven.

The melodic lamentation begins to fade-out to a cacophony of played-up chanting emanating from a very surreal valley. Here you will find the 13 thousand (unlucky for the infidels) of fatwas by the illustrious Bin Baz – except the one declaring infidel he who believes the earth is round- on one round high fidelity CD. A chatty Egyptian exhibitor stops a visitor to sing the praise of a CD containing a library of a 1000 volumes starting -enchantingly enough- with the opus of Mohammed bin Abdul-Wahab – the religious not the musical summit- at mere BD2. Many sea tides have since passed, Karbabad.

At the left wing of the fair, you stumble upon a resourceful Egyptian publisher. On prime display are 6 oversized volumes with titles like “Economic Performance”, “Political Openness” in a series tagged “Under the Reign of HM”, enclosing nothing but newspaper clippings about the island. The collection is only BD120 for individuals, and if you were an institution, the house can sell you their Cairo collection chronicling the island “over a century” at a very special rate.

As you head toward the exit, a very recognizable face of the opposition is doing a survey at one Gulf research centre’s stand. No sooner does the amiable attendant finish receiving his fair share of questions, jumps a visitor with one more about a recent release co-edited by a luminary of former opposition. The attendant seems at genuine loss by the names of the pair of authors; one surly is a machboos-loving academic and the other a most likely enthusiast of pasta al’arrabbiata (with just as deliciously chewable name). Is the dish fat-skimmed enough to comply with the local authorities’ strict dietary guidelines? It was not a la carte.

As you leave the outside gate, a lorry full of brave anti-riot soldiers, blue-uniformed and desertly blue-eyed, enters the outside grounds of the fair, possibly for a refueling break en route to another heated face-off with unruly youths at the other entrance of the village. It’s farewell to books, and back to kitchen matches and tear gas, Karbabad.

March 10, 2006

how literate is your MP

This being the world’s most politically correct island, it is idyllically refreshing to come across someone who bares it all in plainspoken, spur of the moment kind of talk on a clouding issue of the day. Especially on a question regarded by many of sectarian bent as the biggest issue facing this small country: the economic inequality of the Shia of the land and the systemic discrimination they face in public sector employment. From airport security gates to the passport office counters to the hospital corridors, there exists such a blunt sectarian division of labour, you could easily pin point the sectarian affiliation of a person -with a 98.4% accuracy- by simply asking where he works, if any.

Our respected but never elected government had never even tried to acknowledge this of course. (Last year, it emphatically told a UN panel that no form of racial, ethnic or sectarian discrimination exists in the country). And the tendency among political and business elites is to skate around the issue or just offer niceties and silky talk about it. The Shia themselves, ever the most politically correct and sensibility conscious creatures of the animal kingdom, hardly broach the issue in an open and straight manner. (One notable exception is a research done by the -naturally dissolved- Bahrain Centre for Human Rights). So, when someone of note diverges from the fold to freely speak his mind on the grave issue, we insignificant others have to pause and take note.

That courageous soul was the honourable Yousif Al-Harmi. (For those not au courant with our nascent democracy, let me hasten to say he is an MP of the “Chamber of Deputies”, one of many who won their seats thanks to a largely boycotting constituency). He told it as it is to yesterday’s Al-Waqt newspaper. He has the floor:

The honourable MP: The Shia view themselves as the oppressed ones, as if the Sunnis live pampered with luxuries. By this erroneous belief, they are isolating themselves from the country.

The unemployment issue has been politicized. I was the official in the Ministry of Labour overseeing Bahrainization at the time, and I noticed how the overwhelming majority of applicants to private sector jobs were Shia, while the Sunni applicants were few. But this is a result of the Shia students dropping out of primary school. They drop out of intermediate and high school as well. The Sunnis go on to finish school. They get university degrees. And they get good public sector jobs.

Having too many children is a factor too. People have to understand that bringing many children carry financial burdens with it. More children mean lower income.

Thus, if the Shia find themselves unemployed, underemployed or altogether at the bottom of the economic heap, it is undeniably their fault. They seem to lack the cultural and educational wherewithal, or something as basic as self discipline in the classroom or the bedroom, to succeed. That might qualify as a racist insult in a country like the U.S., but thankfully here is no North America, nor would the Shia ever concede to being branded as latter day niggers of the Arabian Gulf.

One is tempted to dismiss the above as a largely ignorant if not purely mental remark, but unfortunately it is far from being an isolated sentiment. A couple of back page columnists have for long harped on the same tune. And royals and big merchants alike have whispered the same line of comment to visiting foreign journalists. It leaves you to ponder, do our esteemed brethrens have access to undisclosed census data showing the Shia of the land with way higher dropout rates and fecundity levels than their Sunni compatriots? Are these guys finely tuned to some other anecdotal evidence we are not privy to? Could the sheer number of Shia be explained by the fact they predated everyone else on the island and were the quasi totality of its inhabitants until two centuries ago?

March 05, 2006

march 5, 51 years on

March 5 (1965) was a defining day in the history of this island. An immortal ushering of days of bullets, blood and martyrs, indelible in a nation’s memory, and its cry for dignity and freedom.

"كان يوما نابضا من شهر مارس، حين صاحت نخلة حرّى، ظمئنا"

March 5 was also the name of a monthly underground publication, which for years set the standards for dissident political journalism in the region.

March 5 (1955) was as well the curious date of a memo written by Sir Bernard Burrows, the then British Chief Political Resident of the Gulf (1953-1958), addressed to the Foreign office in London, detailing a blueprint for what he saw as needed reform steps, in response to the tumultuous rise and demands of the opposition’s “High Executive Committee”, starting in 1954. Excerpts:

a) We should now urge the ruler to allow an independent newspaper to be published, at any rate for a trial period.

b) We should suggest to the ruler that one or two of the members of the “High Executive Committee” should be appointed as individuals on the government committee to study labour questions, and possibly …to include labour organisations.

c) We might urge modifications of the status of municipalities, so as to give them greater independence in the hope that elections could be successfully held.

d) Reports of the government costs on health and education should be published with appropriate comments, showing how much the government has already done.

B. Burrows.

March 5, 1955.

A margin of independent press, partial labour measures, a municipal ceiling for popular will, and unlimited PR was all in the foresight of that British gentleman then. Any points of resemblance to measures of now - or past affiliation of leading names under a, b & c- are obviously unrelated and purely coincidental. Nothing therein should detract from the novelty, originality and the exclusive uniqueness of the recently - and not so recently- announced reform measures. For a trial period at any rate.

March 03, 2006

fountain of beneficence

Wholesome apologies to the distinguished half dozen members of the cabinet and members of the parallel advisory cabinet, and to the uncabineted VIP’s, and above all to the authorities that ordered these and other cabinets, for the lukewarm and unexcited reaction shown by the mainstream to the new royally ordered fountain. We regret this act of ingratitude to a noble gratuity, as some people prove themselves adamantly unreceptive to surprise offerings, be it a constitution or a fountain, from the rulers to the ruled. We also wish to take this opportunity to humbly plead with you to properly baptize it as Al-Fateh Fountain.

As in other instances, the spiteful and spoutful will jump on the occasion to make a political splash if not a theory out of a watery thing. As per habit, they will exploit the plight of the population who can’t tap into a drizzle of water on weekends for an ablution for a prayer’s command, to demand water towers for the affected islanders rather than a fountain in strange proximity to guested mariners of another strategic command. But we are all glad that the symbolism of the occasion is lost on them.

In a way, to govern is to hydraulically engineer (both belong to the science of fluid power), and as such a fountain can be a good model of the mediating processes at work in a constitutional ownedship. One has only to recall that parliament, in its original and ideally unadulterated form before it got deviated to unruly role, was a “parlement”, or spouting place, for the commoners. Like a fountain, it is assembled out of a reservoir, pump and hump, control valves, and spraying nozzles, to put out a delightful, clime moisturizing show for all. Likewise, the quality of intake is crucial and a mechanism for filtering out as much incoming impurities as possible must be in place. You have ultimate and flexible control over hours and periods of operation, switching it off and on at will, or on special occasions when high power dignitaries are in town, or tout its beauty when you are overseas. As for the populace, they can do their pilgrimage, close their eyes and toss their coins and dreams at it, and wait for the lord of the fountain to answer them. No blasphemy is intended here, but if the closing of eyes and the beseeching is done in right bow and pitch and bisht, then the odds are actually much higher for the commoners' wishes to come true.

Who said reform in our part of the world is hot air? Nothing could be further from the truth’s misty and dewy shore.

cabinet affairs

Speaking of cabinety but dry matters, the Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs has been making many headlines of late. Last week, he announced that all is set for electronic voting; a move that will certainly please tens of thousands of newly naturalized islanders everywhere. Why bother to travel in or cross the causeway to cast a piece of paper for your favourite candidate, when you can do it all from the comfort of your living room anywhere. Not computer-literate? No problems, the chiefs of your tribes will be able and willing help, and may even do it for you. Just hand them your username and password.

And today, he is again on first page refusing to take a no for an answer. You may recall that the Civil Service Bureau -in uncharacteristic move- decided to poll the public sector employees on shifting the weekend to Friday-Saturday instead of the current Thursday-Friday. The results are in, and 72 % of the employee preferred things as they stand now. A result berated by the Minister as reflecting sheer ignorance on the part of the employees of their better interests and the higher interest of the country. So, the honourable Minister is refusing to honour the referendum he commissioned. (The govt was muted over the result for a while until pressed over it). It may very well be the last time they come to ask for your opinion about anything.